The concept that nature is good for you is not a new one. In 1901, Scottish-American naturalist John Muir wrote, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Muir’s prescription for mountains, sunshine, trees and wind holds up to modern-day science. Increasing scientific evidence confirms the benefits of exposure to nature on our mental health.
Fifty percent of people live in urban settings, according to a study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Urban life is associated with increasing levels of mental illness, especially depression.
In a study reported in PNAS, scientists explored the effects of nature exposure on rumination, in an effort to ascertain the link between decreased experience in nature to an increased risk for mental illness.
The study defined rumination as “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” You know, those reels we play in our mind of the wrongs done to us, our unmanageable list of regrets and mantras of self-loathing — those ruminations.
The study sent healthy participants on a 90-minute walk both in nature and in an urban setting. Those who tiptoed through the tulips self-reported reduced levels of rumination and decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain linked to mental illness.
Those who spent their 90 minutes walking in an urban setting self-reported no decrease in rumination. Similarly, there was no decrease in neural activity in the subgenus prefrontal cortex. Results validate the need for city planners to prioritize parks and open, natural spaces.
For the rest of us, we should reconsider our weekend and vacation plans. Long walks on the beach and picnics in the forest will contribute more to our rest and rejuvenation than a string of museum visits, shopping sprees and fancy restaurants.
Consider family vacations in the wild rather than in amusement parks.